[Marxism] Did Cannon have a "liquidationist" position on the Black question in the U.S.?

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Tue Feb 28 18:06:14 MST 2006

[This post has been in my drafts folders for 2-3 days waiting for me to
have time to finish it. I've not yet had time to read thoroughly the
follow-on discussion, but there was nothing that struck me as suggesting
this post should be further delayed in skimming some of the material
over the past couple of days.]

David Walters writes: "No, there was nothing at all 'liquidationist' to
Cannon or any other leader of the SWP toward the fight against racism
to the national question
to have the position you'd have to prove there
was something 'to liquidate'
and there wasn't."

There is an element of truth, I think, in David's objection to what I
said too categorically, but before that, I want to make how I view the
most important aspect of this discussion, the reality that undergirds

I believe the national movement of Black people has been a permanent,
central feature of U.S. politics, since long before the SWP existed, and
still is today. (NB: "national" not necessarily self-consciously

And by a central feature, let me make clear, central to everything. To
the wars. To the elections. To the Grammies and Oscars. To what drivel
CNN puts on. To what's on in next week's episode of Smallville.

And central on a continuous basis. 24 X 7 X 365, as we say in the
all-news-network racket. And year after year. Decade after decade.
Through ups and downs, through retreats and upsurges, through periods of
widespread explicitly nationalist organizations, consciousness and
demands, and periods where the repression was so savage, the oppression
was so great, and the movement laid so low that Black people did not
dare vocalize such thoughts.

I forget which group David is now affiliated with but I would urge the
comrades to read and study on this question especially the little book
Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism, which Pathfinder puts out (and of
course to put it on Marxists.org, and if it doesn't pass copyright
muster, I'm willing to bet a "dot-torrent" file of the entire
"infringing" work will find it's way to piratesbay.org should a copy
fall into my hands. I can practically guarantee it.) 

David says the position of the comrades back then a half century or more
ago wasn't "liquidationist" as I charged because concretely, there was
nothing to "liquidate." As I will confess in more detail below, that is
in a sense probably true -- there was for much of that period no
explicitly, consciously nationalist movement. But I insist, the movement
of the Black Nation, however atomized, was ALWAYS there, and ALWAYS,
inescapably, irreducibly, a *national* movement.

If there was nothing to "liquidate," how could Lenin see it and
understand it very sharply and clearly as precisely part of the national
and colonial question (see the draft theses on the national question for
the second Comintern Congress) all the way from Russia? And what are we
to say of the American Marxists' radar, where "the negro question" was
completely absent, it didn't even leave even a trace?

Lenin --in  1920!-- and from thousands of miles away, never having set
foot on U.S. soil:

"In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and
outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant
violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of
national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries,
despite their 'democratic' constitutions. It is also necessary, first,
constantly to explain that only the Soviet system is capable of ensuring
genuine equality of-nations, by uniting first the proletarians and then
the whole mass of the working population in the struggle against the
bourgeoisie; and, second, that all Communist parties should render
direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and
underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes,
etc.) and in the colonies. 

"Without the latter condition, which is particularly important, the
struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as
well as recognition of their right to secede, are but a false signboard,
as is evidenced by the parties of the Second International." 


[And let me add here a word or recognition, praise and thanks to David
and his friends for the awesomely excellent and magnificently
revolutionary Marxists.org web site and archive, and to all the comrades
who have contributed to making the material available online. Now back
to the discussion.]

Note how Lenin throws in the national question of U.S. Blacks "for
example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc." 

"For example, Ireland" he says. Ireland! Ireland is probably the great
granddaddy of them all in terms of the national question, and certainly
for the Marxist movement. The ABC's of the revolutionary Marxist
approach to the national movements of oppressed peoples are practically
in Gaelic. Marx and Engels unbreakable solidarity with the heroic
struggle of that noble nation is, historically, politically and
theoretically, the cornerstone of a revolutionary policy on the national
and colonial question in the age of imperialism.

And Lenin, who wasn't an unconscious sort of guy, what HE is saying is
that the Black question in the U.S. is an *absolutely blatantly obvious*
national question, like Ireland. 

Knowing the historical context a little bit, I believe it was Lenin's
way of engaging the American comrades in a dialogue, because *their*
position was something like, "Negro question? What Negro question? Stop
pulling our leg, Vlad, do you *really* think the Black question is an
important question, one of these national questions you're so focused

And Lenin's answer was, "Dudes! Like, duh...." He was telling them it's
not 2+2=4. But one plus one. Not ABC's but just "A." Not just
discernible, but inescapable.

Why did Lenin draw this conclusion? Because it was so bloody BLATANT. 

The Russian pogroms were just a shadow of the mass terrorism deployed by
white America to keep the Black nation subjugated and enslaved. Rape.
Lynchings by the score, year after year, decade after decade. Rigid
arbitrary lines the Black man dare not cross, or his life would be

You'd have to be an idiot NOT to see it. Either that, or an American,
socialized your entire life to ignore the choir of elephants doing
jumping jacks in your living room to a rhythmic chant of "hate the
n*****s, kill the n*****s." Americans consider that something so little
worthy of special notice as that the entire volume of the room is filled
with air. The entire volume of America was (and is!) as thoroughly
filled, to every last pore, with anti-Black white supremacist ideology
and practice as any room is filled with air. Note that well: to every
pore. Every LAST pore. 

Lenin's point was that squads of elephants were actually a little bit
different from the air. Not nearly as light weight, their presence tends
to dominate whatever social setting they're in, especially one of close
quarters, such as a multinational state, a prison house of nations.

*  *  *

Jim Cannon has a pretty good --and, quite unusual for him, very
favorable to the post-1920s CPUSA-- article on the role of the Russians
to opening up the eyes of the American Communists to what was staring
them right in their face but they had been socialized NOT to see, the
most socially explosive aspect of U.S. society, the Black national

Again, I am tremendously in the debt of David and his friends because I
was unaware of this article by Cannon until a few weeks ago, when a
reference to the Cannon section of the marxists.org archive was posted
here, and thus I came across it.

Called, "The Russian Revolution and the Black Struggle in the United
States," Cannon explains that, although the "Negro question" --as it was
called at the time-- was a major political preoccupation of the CP in
the 1920's, in his recollections of those years and the faction fights
then, nothing was said of it because "none of the American leaders came
up with any new ideas on this explosive problem on their own account;
and none of the factions, as such, sponsored any of the changes in
approach, attitude and policy which were gradually effected by the time
the party finished its first decade.

"The main discussions on the Negro question took place in Moscow, and
the new approach to the problem was elaborated there."

Cannon goes through how, time and again, the Russians --and in this
case, he does not draw a sharp differentiation between these
interventions in Lenin's time and later-- INSISTED on discussing the
question of Blacks in the United States, including in 1928, where they
argued for the adoption of the self-determination slogan, and then he
recounts the tremendous success of the CP in organizing American Blacks
in the 1930's.

"These new developments appear to contain a contradictory twist which,
as far as I know, has never been confronted or explained. The expansion
of communist influence in the Negro movement in the ’30s happened
despite the fact that one of the new slogans imposed on the party by the
Comintern—the slogan of 'self-determination'—about which the most to-do
was made and the most theses and resolutions were written, and which was
even touted as the main slogan, never seemed to fit the actual
situation. The slogan of 'self-determination' found little or no
acceptance in the Negro community after the collapse of the separatist
movement led by Garvey. Their trend was mainly toward integration, with
equal rights.

"In practice the CP jumped over this contradiction. When the party
adopted the slogan of 'self-determination', it did not drop its
aggressive agitation for Negro equality and Negro rights on every front.
On the contrary, it intensified and extended this agitation. That’s what
the Negroes wanted to hear, and that’s what made the difference. It was
the CP’s agitation and action under the latter slogan that brought the
results, without the help, and probably despite, the unpopular
'self-determination' slogan and all the theses written to justify it."

So despite this defect ("self-determination"), Cannon is unabashed in
his praise for the CP policy in the 30's on the ground: "The new policy
on the Negro question, learned from the Russians in the first 10 years
of American communism, enabled the Communist Party in the ’30s to
advance the cause of the Negro people; and to expand its own influence
among them on a scale never approached by any radical movement before
that time. These are facts of history; not only of the history of
American communism, but of the history of the Negro struggle for
emancipation too."

(That full article is here:

Cannon's article is remarkable in many ways, and especially because its
central message to *his own* party in 1959 was to study and learn from
the example of the CP in the 1930's. 

But the aspect of interest to me here is his polemic against
self-determination. Apart from the flash-in-the-pan Garvey movement, he
says, this self-determination stuff is for the birds. Unpopular, "the
Negroes" don't want it. 

It is, in reality, a polemic not just with the Russians who were there
at the 1928 Comintern discussions, but with one who was already absent:
Trotsky. Because it was Trotsky who insisted on the very same
"self-determination" position in relation to Black people and convinced
the SWP to adopt it at its founding. And I don't think Cannon bought it.
He deferred to Trotsky and perhaps some of the other comrades at the end
of the 1930's, but I think his own writings show he never internalized
that position. And he certainly doesn't seem to understand that there
was a *connection* between the CP's defense of the right of Black people
to self-determination, on the one hand, and their championing the
immediate issues and concerns of the Black community, on the other.

It is also notable that Cannon doesn't quibble about the CP's specific
"Black Belt" proposal (he doesn't even mention it), and quite rightly
so. That is a secondary matter, the weakness, as Cannon saw it, was
viewing the Negro question in the U.S. as a national question of the age
of imperialism, as one involving self-determination. 

Lenin -- and after him ALL sides in the Russian disputes of those years
-- agreed, the Black question was a national question, NOT JUST a
question of fighting "racism" and "discrimination." Even AFTER the
bureaucratic degeneration had begun, and was quite advanced, ALL the
Russians, from Trotsky to Stalin, were STILL disciples of Lenin on this
ONE point: the Black question in the U.S. was a national question.

Why do I harp so much on this ONE and at that time rather theoretical
point, that it was a NATIONAL question? Because saying NATION
automatically poses the question of the STATE, of POLITICAL POWER. 

NATIONAL questions are so important because they AUTOMATICALLY raise the
question of who should rule. And if you're part of a capitalist class
that is overwhelmingly white/Anglo, and suddenly a bunch of people start
talking about a Black state, or a Latino state, or a "Black-brown state"
(we'll take everything from Virginia through California inclusive, thank
you very much), you're likely to look askance at the prospect.

But if you're on the OTHER side of the class line, it's going to be what
Malcolm X taught: if you love revolution, you'll love Black Nationalism.

But there is a more immediate reason for singling this out. I believe
that IF you support the right to self determination and internalize
that, it becomes *not just* a promissory note for "when the time comes,"
but something with immediate applicability in the here and now.

Cannon's article was published in 1959. It only took history a few more
years to demonstrate to him --and the SWP as a whole-- just how
completely and utterly wrong Cannon's belittling of self-determination
had been, and that led the SWP to embrace not just the defense of the
right of Black people to control THEIR OWN destiny,
"self-determination," but the most outstanding and clear-sighted
representative of the rising tide of nationalist consciousness in the
Black Nation, Malcolm X.

It is to Cannon's everlasting credit --and something of a lesson for us
about insisting too much about the "logic" of a bad theoretical
position, like his pooh-poohing of self-determination in 1959-- that
Cannon played a central role --the largest role of any *individual*-- in
forging the only cadre of mostly-white folks who understood, embraced
and helped Malcolm spread his message. And if Malcolm's genuine message
is known today, that is due to a significant degree to the speeches and
interviews that the tiny SWP of those years gathered together and
published. The Black radicals who in 1964 and 1965 were looking to
Malcolm for leadership weren't well-organized enough to accomplish that.
The SWP was -- barely at first, then increasingly over the next decade
or so.

And even this article by Cannon, despite its wrong stance on
self-determination, I would judge as a positive contribution to that
having happened, for his insistence on respecting the accomplishments of
the CP in the 30's, locating that in the CP's championing of the demands
of Black people, his explanation of how the Black movement is part of
the anticolonial movements of people of color set off by the Russian
Revolution (despite his stance on self-determination which in reality
contradicts that whole line of argument). In fact, I would say that what
Cannon counterposes to self-determination -- the CP championing and
generalizing the demands of Black people -- was in reality an
application of respecting the RIGHT to self-determination, not in some
nebulous future, but in the here-and-now.

So perhaps David is right in objecting to my using the term
"liquidationism" here. It is one-sided. But I believe in terms of the
broad theoretical outlook the position of the SWP until the early 60's
*tended* towards liquidating the national question into the class

Yet precisely the Russian influence that Cannon talks about, and which
the SWP inherited, although perhaps not as consciously and fully as one
would have wished, pushed them in the opposite direction in terms of
practical politics, and especially during the second world war, when the
CP's subordination of what I would call the national movement of the
Black Nation taught the SWP in very practical terms the importance of
championing the demands of Blacks.

*  *  *

Now, some of you are probably thinking that the REASON so much attention
is being paid to the precise theoretical formulations of nearly
50-year-old articles by a comrade who has been dead for three decades
and whose party --as a revolutionary organization, however imperfect--
did not survive him by many years probably is not a concern to draw up a
millimeter-precise balance sheet of that experience, and may well have
something to do with political questions today.

That would be correct, at least on my part.

It certainly isn't going to be news to anyone who has eyes to see and
ears to hear that this issue of the national question within the United
States remains a fundamental divide within the American Left. In my
estimation, this, together with "the organization question," and not
just "together with" but *intertwined* with it, is the main obstacle
towards at least some immediate steps towards unity of revolutionary
socialists in this country, not all, but a section of them.

In my own group, Solidarity, there are some comrades who don't feel
comfortable with what they view as a 1960's analysis of the Black
movement and the situation of other nationally oppressed peoples in this
country, i.e., the sort of views I hold. There is also widespread
sentiment that our organization is not sufficiently engaged with the
communities, organizations, issues, protests and movements of nationally
oppressed peoples in the U.S., but this sentiment cuts across the
ideological division. This is going to be a significant discussion
leading up to our 20th anniversary convention in Chicago the weekend of
July 21-23.

I raise this because if comrades look carefully at that last sentence,
they'll see what I did NOT say was "a significant INTERNAL discussion"
but rather "a significant discussion." 

Because the discussion on these general issues of theory, program and
orientation really isn't just "inside" Solidarity, and so we're not
going to try to keep it strictly "internal." 

At our December NC meeting, we voted to have a "mostly open written
preconvention discussion," meaning that, while our members would be free
to keep any article they contributed strictly "internal" if they do
desired, and the organization as a whole has ruled that things like
articles about, for example, tactical situations in a particular union,
or the nitty-gritty of our relations with other left groups, should be
kept private to avoid all sorts of misunderstandings and especially
mischief from right wingers, the articles on general theoretical,
political and programmatic issues, our overall approach to issues or
movement building, etc., will as a general rule be public. 

And we'll be putting together an electronic-only "public" version of our
"internal" bulletin for anyone who cares to read it. The modalities of
distribution are still being worked out, but probably it will either be
on our web site, or distributed through something like a Yahoo group set
up for that purpose. 

We're not creating --at least not THIS time around-- a specific form for
non-Soli members to "intervene" in the discussion. But I assume people
will use their blogs or spaces such as this one to post comments, if
they feel moved to do so.

As some people who have been following this list for a time may suspect
already, I was among those involved in shaping and motivating this
proposal. On the revolutionary left we often have discussions in this or
that group that are essentially around the same issues as other groups
are discussing, yet there is limited interpenetration, even though if
you could look at the frank opinion of ALL the members of several
groups, you'd see what seems to be a current in ONE group is REALLY a
current across several groups. 

I believe that is simply a *fact* when you're dealing with various
questions in the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the Black Workers
for Justice, and Solidarity. I believe that is also likely true on at
least a some of those questions in relation to the ISO and also the WWP
and PSL, as well as a layer of the comrades in the CPUSA and YCL, and
perhaps the Committees of Correspondence, though that last one is just
surmise on my part. But these are question for many hundreds, perhaps
thousands of militants who find the whole collection of Left groups more
a hindrance than a help, and don't belong to any. 

What I'm looking for --frankly-- is a way to build bridges between
"internal" discussions *across* organizational boundaries, to people in
other groups and in no group, "disloyal" as that may sound. 

"Disloyal" because we've been trained --a lot of us-- in a spirit of
"party patriotism" ("my party, right or wrong") which posits that
however great the differences between members of the True Revolutionary
Party may be, they will never be as great as the chasm of principle that
separates all "True Revolutionary" folks from the Truly Revolutionary

And, to be brutally honest, I actually believe that's a bunch of
sectarian horseshit. The actual divides are between the mainstream of
ruling class policies, the reformist/opportunist forces, and the
revolutionary-minded forces. The multiplicity of revolutionaries groups
does not "flow" from political disagreements, it FOSTERS political
differentiation, and frequently a kind of sectarianism where each group
tries to out-left and out-orthodox the other in their propaganda and
stated positions, something that the intelligentsia is especially prone


-----Original Message-----
From: marxism-bounces at lists.econ.utah.edu
[mailto:marxism-bounces at lists.econ.utah.edu] On Behalf Of
dwalters at marxists.org
Sent: Saturday, February 25, 2006 9:50 PM
To: marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu
Subject: RE: [Marxism] February 24, 2006

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